A few teams have begun to separate themselves from the pack as we reach the point in the season where results are at least slightly more predictable. Connecticut continues their strong play from last season as they have the look of a team that can compete for years to come. Seattle is enjoying the performances of some young players in Breanna Stewart and Jordin Canada this year. Veteran lead teams such as the Phoenix Mercury and the Los Angeles Sparks look like they are ready for another run. So let’s focus on the teams on the rise to start this week’s rebound.
Five main stories of the week.
1) What is going on in Atlanta: What a week for Nicki Collen and her Atlanta Dream. After becoming Head Coach this off-season, the Dream have rounded into form for Collen over the last week starting with a win over her former team the Connecticut Sun, their first and only loss of the season so far. A win over the Storm ended their strong week in which they showed off their strong defence.
Their defence carried them in both of their big wins this week by first stopping the best offence in the league and limiting them to a lowly 36% from the field. A trip to Seattle would scare most defences with Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird but the Dream defence limited them to 12, 14 and 4 points respectively.
On the offensive end they were getting contributions from multiple players who had outstanding weeks. Tiffany Hayes was the key piece with her big week which I’ll discuss later. Key contributions from their heart and soul leader Angel McCoughtry who provided a double-double in their win over Seattle with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Damiris Dantas came alive against the Sun’s with a season high 15 points and five rebounds in 21 minutes before also chipping in 12 against Seattle coming off the bench in both games.
2) Storm make a statement: Let’s ignore that loss to Atlanta for a moment and appreciate the Seattle performance in one of the toughest environments in the league in Los Angeles. A fast start gave Seattle a 24-9 lead after the first before they went on for a comfortable 25-point win. Against an aggressive Sparks defence that has specialized in creating chaos and turnovers, Seattle managed to shoot over 50% and only turn the ball over 16 times while forcing Los Angeles into a season high 17 for themselves.
There main two offensive threats have cooled off this week though which is a little concerning. Expecting Stewart and Loyd to stay second and third in league scoring would be asking a lot but both being held under 20 points in both games is way to low. They both remain in the top 10 (Stewart fourth, Loyd seventh) so expect them to pick it back-up but it should be something to watch this week against Chicago and Connecticut.
3) Cracks in Connecticut: Speaking of Connecticut, the game against Seattle went from a potentially high-scoring game to one that might become a rock fight. Pulling out a win against the Liberty should be a little easier than it was for the Sun’s. They trailed for most of the game and even in the fourth they did just enough to win by two. If Shekinna Stricklen doesn’t come off the bench for the first time this season and hit a buzzer beating three then the alarm bells would be going off after a loss earlier in the week to Atlanta.
Alyssa Thomas is doing everything she can at the Power Forward position averaging 12.6 points, 12.6 rebounds and five assists to keep the offence moving at a decent pace. Without a true superstar Connecticut is reliant on team performances like the one they got against New York with six players putting up 10 points if they want to continue with their winning ways. Can you win in the playoffs without at least two MVP level players is the question fans of the Sun’s should be asking.
4) Mercury rising: The Dream may have had the biggest wins of the week, but the league’s hottest team is residing in Phoenix. The Mercury have won five straight after starting 2-3 and the streak has included wins over Atlanta and New York most prominently. The win over Atlanta continues to look more and more impressive with the wins they are collecting.
The Mercury can come at you on offence in various ways. Brittney Griner can work down low in the post and collect rebounds, Diana Taurasi can attack from beyond the arc and as a playmaker while DeWanna Bonner can play the supplementary role. When all three are clicking they can score 58 of 72 points like they did against Las Vegas or 65 of 80 against New York. Briann January and Sancho Lyttle are also capable of scoring when needed, against Chicago they both finished with double digit points.
5) Liberty and close games: One team that has been hard to figure out this year is the team in the big apple. New York has been in close games throughout the year including a few games that have come down to buzzer beater shots that have either gone in or missed. The biggest difference between their average stats compared to their opponent’s averages is that they convert a higher percentage of free throws while their opponents get to the line more often.
On a team playing with this thin of a margin it is a little surprising that stud rookie Kia Nurse has yet to start a game despite leading the team in true shooting percentage, while remaining strong on defence to have the top net rating of any player averaging at least 15 minutes per game. Nurse could be an underdog for rookie of the year behind A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Mitchell, who are playing on teams a combined 1-15. Being the second-best player on a potential playoff team behind Tina Charles is a strong accomplishment. Charles is still comfortably in control of this team, she is the only player who uses more than 30% of her team’s possessions with a career-high 32.7%.
Other interesting pieces of information.
6) All-Star Format: The league announced a change in format to align with the NBA and NHL changes in recent years with captains selecting teams which can create some fun combinations, hopefully this draft will be televised.
7) Diana Taurasi 8,000: Another career milestone for the legend who became the first person to reach the mark in a Phoenix win over the Liberty in Madison Square Garden which makes it even more special.
8) Liberty Games in MSG: They’re only going to do this twice this year, but I’m sure for everyone involved it’s a special experience and hopefully can happen more often in one of the best basketball venues in the world.
9) Mystics fully healthy but still struggling: Natasha Cloud and more importantly Elena Della Donne returned after missing three and four games respectively, but the Mystics lost to the Lynx with both back as the team struggles after starting 4-0.
10) Playoff field beginning to form: I’m going to pencil in Connecticut, Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas and even Washington for seven of the eight playoff spots.
11) Next Indiana win: If they don’t beat Las Vegas Tuesday this is there schedule after that game; Atlanta twice, Los Angeles, Seattle, Connecticut twice, Phoenix, Atlanta, that’s a brutal schedule for any team.
12) Plan accordingly: Connecticut visits Seattle Friday, the Sparks host the red-hot Dream Tuesday and if you want to torture yourself, Las Vegas will be playing in Indiana.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
A starting line-up with one bench player who were the best over the last 6 days.
G- Tiffany Hayes (ATL)- A model of consistency in a big week for the Dream, Hayes shot above 50% in all three games and scored 22, 24 and 23 points as they took down the Storm and Sun. her defensive effort has been strong all season too with her seventh in steals with 1.63 per game.
G- Skylar Diggins-Smith (DAL)- WHAT. A. GAME. It may have taken 40 minutes to collect but the final stat line of 35 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists was a career high in points and rebounds for her. Usually I wouldn’t give this award to a player who played one game, but this could be the stat line of the season.
F- Natasha Howard (SEA)- Time to show my love for rebound machines and this week it goes to Natasha Howard who collected nine in the win over the Sparks and an astonishing 15 in the loss over the Sun. She also scored 16 and 15 respectively in those games to show she can play both ways.
F- Nneka Ogwumike (LAS)- She was doing her part to try and keep the Seattle game close with 19 points in 20 minutes. Combine with the 16 she scored against Chicago to go along with nine rebounds and she had herself a week.
C- Brittney Griner (PHX)- She averaged 23 and 9.7 in three games this week including a big 26-point performance against New York and 15 rebounds against Las Vegas. If she can keep this up the Mercury will continue their winning ways.
Bench- Damiris Dantas (ATL)? Amanda Zahui B (NYL)? Tanisha Wright (MIN)? Kia Nurse (NYL)? Stephanie Mavunga (IND)?
Based on recent results above all else, also a quick way to laugh at me when a lower ranked team beats a higher ranked one.
1) Connecticut Sun (7-1): They may have lost a game this week, but with the other’s struggling at the top we’ll leave them here for now in hopes they regain their early season offensive form.
2) Seattle Storm (6-3): If they didn’t trip up against Atlanta I would have given them the top spot after going into LA and beating the Sparks.
3) Los Angeles Sparks (5-2): Yeah, they got destroyed by Seattle, but their only other loss was to the Sun, so I can’t rank them to far from the top.
4) Phoenix Mercury (7-3): Winning five in a row is nice, except their best win has been Atlanta? Let’s wait till they play a top three team.
5) Atlanta Dream (5-3): Beating the top two teams by eight combined points is nice but I’m going to be patient for now, if they beat LA on Tuesday then expect a big jump next week.
6) Dallas wings (4-3): One game and one win with a career performance from Diggins-Smith over Indiana means we’ll leave them in the middle for now.
7) Washington Mystics (5-4): They’ve lost three in a row and with a healthy roster need to get back to form otherwise they could waste a strong start.
8) Minnesota Lynx (3-6): This may be where we see this team for the rest of the year unless the supporting cast helps Fowles and Moore more.
9) New York Liberty (3-4): If you want a fun team to watch on league pass this is the one for you, all seven of their games have been decided by six points or less.
10) Chicago Sky (3-5): The classic case of a team that isn’t awful (they beat the Aces) but also isn’t good (all five losses by at least 17 points).
11) Las Vegas Aces (1-7): I hope Vegas wasn’t hoping to make the finals in every sport after what the Golden Knights did.
12) Indiana Fever (0-8): When they win a game, I’ll consider moving them up.